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Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Extending An Olive Branch

Where, oh where, have the flowers gone? Long time passing?

Yes, flower children, Fall has fallen upon us and that could mean one of four things:

A. Decent weather until October 15th
B. Bring The Troops Home rally and march on 9/24
C. Olive pickin' time and
D. We're still stuck in this goddamn Age of Pisces.

A couple of weeks ago when Bruce and I were in the Central Valley, we stopped by our spot to check out the progress of the olive trees. The olives, while not as big as I've seen before, were of good size and still green. Best of all, they seemed completely free of Olive Fly.

So, after recruiting our unpaid labor force (Karen, Jennifer, and Lori), we headed to our little olive oasis in the middle of the boonies and began picking. In a matter of minutes, we had half of a paint bucket full. Or in terms of pounds, we had approximately 13.5 pounds.

Not bad. I'm beginning to understand why employers appreciate the value of not paying their workers.

Bruce's dad has been curing his own green olives for a long time and only recently shared with us his recipe and picking location. Last year we picked kind of late in the season and many of the olives had Olive Fly damage. Nevertheless, we cured green, black, and (attempted) green/purple olives; our favorite from that bunch being the salt-cured black olives.

Now that we've had a year to learn, this year we hope to improve our curing techniques and produce quality olives to share with our friends and family.

So far, so good.

Here's my technique for green olives obtained from many different sources (such as Bruce's Dad), as well as trial and error from last year.

Besides olives and water, you'll need:

A long-handled wooden spoon

A large non-metallic, non-porous bowl (or something similar, ie., paint bucket)
(This will be used to store your olives in while they cure. For the purpose of this post, I will refer to this as the Hot Diggety Dog, or HDD, container)

Another large, similar container (could be an ice chest. I shall refer to this container as the
Red-Headed Stepchild, or RHS, container.
This is used to transfer the olives to when changing the water)

A plastic colander (plenty of cheap ones in Chinatown) – or you can use the basket of your salad spinner like I do.

Plenty of Kosher salt

A gallon size jar or container (I will refer to this as Aunt Melba)

A glass or plastic measuring cup

Rubber Gloves

"Red Devil" lye (no additives, only 100% pure. Is found in the cleaning section of your supermarket)



Prepare a solution of 1 cup vinegar and 1 cup water in a bowl. Keep it nearby to wash your skin in case of lye burn.

OK, here we go!

Place your HDD in the bathtub, or whatever work space/laboratory you have. Dump all of your olives into the HDD container. Fill up your Aunt Melba; it should be approximately 1 gallon. Now pour this over the olives. Does it completely cover the olives? No? Then fill it up again and pour over the olives until just covering. Make a mental note of how many gallons it takes.

Like I said, we have 13.5 pounds of olives. It took 1.5 gallons of water to cover. I found out how many pounds my olives weighed by pouring them into a paper shopping bag and weighing them on my bathroom scale.

Using your hands, wait no. You better start using your wooden spoon just to get adjusted. Using your wooden spoon, stir the olives to wash off any dirt or dust. Drain the olives and dump into the RHS.

Put on your gloves. Fill the HDD with clean, COLD! water. How much water? Remember that mental note? Are you even paying attention?

OK, let's say you fill it up with 1.5 gallons of water. For that amount, I used exactly ¼ cup of lye. Pour the lye into the (DRY!) measuring cup. Lye reacts strongly with water, so don't mix the two unless it's in your HDD. Also, once it hits the water, a chemical reaction happens and it heats up the water, so only use cold water. And for GOD'S SAKE, don't come in contact with the lye.

Is you crazy? I said don't mess around with the lye!

Taking that into consideration, carefully pour the lye into the water-filled HDD. Now stir gently to mix. No splashing!

Now, slowly and delicately, pour your olives into the HDD. If you want to take an extra precaution, you can spoon the olives in. Cover the HDD with something like a wooden or plastic cutting board or something similar.

Usually, you would let it sit for 6 hours, stirring halfway, then change the solution with a fresh solution and then repeat.

Oh, but not I!

Instead (this was totally due to my schedule), I let them sit in the first solution for 3 ½ hours. Then I drained the olives (very carefully) in the plastic colander, dumped them into the RHS, repeated the lye solution recipe, dumped the olives back into the HDD, covered, shut the bathroom door (so the kitties wouldn't go in there, get into trouble and die and have me wake up to poisoned dead kitties), and went to bed.

As soon as I got up for work, roughly (very rough) 8 hours later, I put my gloves on, drained the olives, dumped them into the RHS, then back into the empty HDD, and poured cold water over them. Actually I did this last step in the kitchen, which is where the HDD will stay until the olives are cured. If the lye-treatment is successful, it would have penetrated the olive. You will know if the lye has penetrated the olive whereby cutting one open, the flesh from the skin to the pit is yellow-green.

As it happens, this specific lye solution along with this amount of time was perfect for the olives. Last year I over-cured the olives using too strong of a mixture and too long of a sitting time. Doing that causes the olives to lose all of their flavor, as well as make the flesh mushy.

If the lye bath treatment was the first stage, this is the second. There are 3 stages total.

From now until the next 5 or so days, you are going to be soaking the olives in water, changing the water everyday, keeping it covered. After the 3rd or 4th day, if the olive doesn't feel slick and the water has begun to turn a light pink, you can taste the olive. If it still tastes "soapy", continue to let sit for another 2 days. As it happens, around the 4th day, my olives still needed a day or two. I also noticed that some of the olives didn't have 100% of the bitterness leached out. That's OK. Let them soak another day or two.

OK, that's stage two. Now for stage 3, or the brining/fermenting stage.

Green olives benefit from a brief fermenting stage using nothing but salt and water.

To start, prepare a brine solution using ½ cup table salt for each 1 gallon of water. Stir until salt is dissolved. Pour this solution over the drained olives in the HDD. Stir again and cover. Let sit for 24 hours and then change the water using the same brine solution. Now, for the next 7 days, your job gets easier. All you have to do is stir the olives once a day. Make sure to keep the HDD covered. Also, keep the olives somewhere your kids, or if you're a San Franciscan, your dog, can't get to and in a place that stays consistently at room temperature.

Around the 7th day, your brine will have that characteristic fonk that all fermented things do. Smell it. Smell the love. Now take an olive out and taste it. Ummm. Tastes good, dunnit. Save that brine!

At this point, you should decide if you want to eat the olives right away or store them long term. If you're going to give them away, like at say, Thanksgiving, you should store them in a heavier salt to water ratio; around 2 cups salt per gallon. This solution will allow you to store them in the cupboard. If you want to eat them sooner rather than later, store them in a weaker solution, say 1 cup salt per gallon, and store them in the fridge. When ready to eat, you can decrease the saltiness of the olives by changing the brine the night before to a weaker solution.

When jarring your olives, put a little bit of the liquid from the mother brine in with your new saline solution. The lactic acid in the brine that is a natural result from the fermenting process is beneficial not only for taste, but for preservation. (Oh, and veganssome, not all – please google "lactic acid" and learn what it really is. I read some idiots on a vegan chatboard forgoing olives because they contain lactic acid?!)

I tend to not go overboard in flavoring the olives. They have such a great, buttery flavor on their own, it's almost a shame to cover that up. But if you do, and I do for some of them, you can add a few cloves of chopped garlic, some lemon, and some dried oregano. You can also toss in a chili pepper or two to add heat.

I'm so pleased with this year's olive harvest/cure. The olives I have are firm with a crisp bite to them. The olive meat is rich and almost buttery. They're not over cured and a lot of the olive fruit flavor still remains. The color on the olives are a deep, rich green that is pleasant to the eye.

This is Cali-forn-I-ay living at it's finest, folks.


Friday, September 16, 2005

Eat Uncomfortable Challenge #1: 86'd

Yesterday, me and "K" went to Gold Mountain on Broadway for lunch.

"K" is, or should I say was, a co-worker who had just been given the ax because his performance wasn't up to the standards he originally sold himself on. The funny thing is, I think he knew this. Almost everyone looking for a better job fluffs up their resume a little. I've known folks who just downright lie on their resume. Some folks get by, while others fail. Sometimes horribly.

"K" was of the latter. He had sold himself as being a highly experienced drafter/job captain when, we latter found out, he was just a beginner.

On Wednesday, the bossman gave him an ultimatum: either take a drastic cut in pay, or hit the road. All of this happened within eyeshot of where I was sitting, with "K" facing me the whole time. Because I knew it was coming, I felt guilty, sick to my stomach, and avoided looking at him. The office grapevine is a horrible phenomenon. Sometimes I would rather just not know. Knowing made me feel part and parcel to the firing.

To tell you the truth, I hoped "K" would stay, even at a lower rate. During the past three months, I've enjoyed talking to him about work, Chinese history, and politics. But on Thursday, he finally told us he was leaving and today was his last day.

Around noon, I approached "K" and asked him if he was busy, and if not, would he like to go to lunch. He didn't answer at first, and when he finally said "yes", "G" who was sitting nearby said "I thought you said yesterday that you didn't want to go to lunch with us".


"K" said he had changed his mind, but when "G" said "well, we'd like to go to Chinatown with you but can you wait until 12:30?", "K" said "no, I'm hungry now".

Was this a burn? Am I seeing "K" burn "G" in front of my own eyes?

After "K" stepped out to use the restroom, I apologized to "G" and said I had no idea what "K" meant by all that. "G" blew it off. All I know is that I didn't want to piss off "G" since not only do I have to work with him everyday, but he's also my Chinatown lunch buddy.

After stepping out of the office, "K" suggested we go to Gold Mountain for dim sum, or more appropriately, yum cha, which means "drink tea". It would be my first visit to Gold Mountain and my first, and last, lunch with "K".

In San Francisco's Chinatown, you see the words "gold mountain" on everything from restaurants, to murals, and even on a Buddhist monastery. When news of the gold rush hit Canton in 1848, thousands of Chinese men sailed to "Gum Shan", or Gold Mountain as California was then called, in order to strike it rich. Since then, very little has changed. Just look at "K"; that's his story in a nutshell.

There is nothing special about the Gold Mountain restaurant, other than not having to wait a long time to be seated. Most of the customers are Chinese with a few gweilos thrown in for good measure. The dim sum, for the most part, is brought around on carts.

Once we were seated, we were asked what kind of tea we wanted. "K" ordered the Gok Fah, or Chrysanthemum, tea for both of us. Gok Fah tea is light green in color with a sweet fragrance and has a cleansing effect in between bites of various dim sum. If you can't remember the Cantonese name, "K" suggested you order the "flower" or "yellow flower" tea and most waiters/waitresses will know what you're talking about.

I also let "K" order the dim sum and to my surprise it was very conventional, but good, fare. Of course there was har gow and siu mai, but in addition he ordered the chicken feet, the beef tripe, and the beef balls (er, not what you're thinking).

After we began to eat, "K" made a remark saying that I'm the second Caucasian he knows that likes chicken feet. Well, that's one more than I know. And had "K" not ordered it, I still wouldn't know whether I like it or not. Honestly, I've been afraid to try it. I had no idea how to eat it or even what to look for as far as taste and texture. Ditto for the beef tripe. "K" explained that the skin is the edible part of the chicken feet. So, without hesitating, I picked one up with my chopsticks, grabbed onto a claw with my teeth, and pulled off the skin. To my surprised, it tasted like chicken! Or, actually, chicken skin that was lean and coated in a sweet dark red glaze.

Before I go any further, it should be pointed out that "K" said that none of this stuff is what he and other Chinese people actually eat at home. For one thing, most of the dumplings are too time consuming to make daily. Second, most of the flavors are too strong to eat on a regular basis (remember, the Cantonese value the freshness and pure taste of ingredients and season their food very lightly). One thing he neglected to mention, but what I suspect, is that it just isn't nutritious to eat dim sum all of the time. I've said it once and I'll say it again: I want to see the dim sum version of "Super Size Me". Oh, Morgan Spurlock made it through a month on nothing but McDonalds, but let's see him last two weeks on lo bok go, dahn tat, and Chinese donuts.

The other dim sum dish I'd been leery of trying was the beef tripe. For some reason or other, I've always imagined tripe tasting like the chit'lins my friend's Mom made for us when I was 12.

Not these.

The tripe, which the waitress will cut up for you, didn't have much flavor on it's own, but was great at clinging on to the sauce, making it very juicy. The sauce (or juice really) was thin and clear, and had a sweet, light, and mildly piquant taste. Part of the texture of the tripe was like that of jellyfish; a mildly crunchy and rubbery give once you bit down. The other part of the texture was what I can only describe as the closest I've come to eating a French Tickler.

The har gow and siu mai were by far the best I've had in Chinatown, which compared to places like You's and Louie's isn't much, but still good nevertheless. The beef balls we had were very beefy tasting despite the fact that I didn't actually see anything that resembled meat. Instead, they were a dark color and had that weird consistency that the shrimp and fish balls have.

Those balls truly scare me. Perhaps it's been all of the horror stories I've heard of the fish balls at the Tonga Room.

All in all, our total bill was $14. Not bad considering the amount of food we ordered. Most importantly, I came away totally smitten by the Chrysanthemum tea. My other two winners were (yes) the chicken feet (fun to eat) and the beef tripe; consider my fear of them gone.

The whole time "K" and I sat talking about food and what type of work he was going to look for next, I kept anticipating that he was going to launch into a tirade against my boss and co-workers. Or maybe say how he never liked the job and what a pathetic company it was to work for, etc. Thankfully, he didn't. But that impending sense of "is he going to lose his shit" did hang in the air the whole time. If he had gone ballistic, I could sympathize, since my boss can be an impatient asshole on occasion. And in fact, some of those occasions have been him barking demands at "K".

I've been to plenty of lunches for co-workers who were quitting and moving on to other jobs or places, but this was the first lunch I've had with a co-worker who got fired. Maybe I wouldn't have be so inclined to ask "K" to lunch had he been one of those types of co-workers you pray day in and day out to get supremely shit-canned.

The hard part was that, while everyone seemed to agree that "K's" performance "wasn't a good match", "K" personally was.

To make lunch that day feel even more uncomfortable, it seems my favorite Bahn Mi joint has closed. As "K" and I were walking to Gold Mountain, we passed its newspaper-upped windows, looking as if it had been closed for months when only last week I was sitting inside.



Monday, September 05, 2005

Bulls and Olives

This weekend we went down to the Central Valley to stay with Karen, but also to go to a bullfight on Sunday in Escalon.

This was to be my third bullfight and Bruce's second. Our friend Seth and some of his friends were also organizing a posse from the Bay Area to meet us there. Like last time, I wanted to bring a bottle of port and some Portuguese cookies, only this time I didn't have time to make the cookies.

This led to some desperate searching of Portuguese bakeries open past 2 PM on Saturdays. After calling around and giving up, I spotted a bakery open in Hilmar as we were on our way to a quilting store there (Karen's been bit by the quilting bug in a big way). The Hilmar Portuguese Bakery was a bare bones operation, but they had what we needed, as well as some things that we might have to buy on a future visit. Here I found some nice looking bacalhau, or salt cod, for around $9 a pound. They also had some freshly baked sweet bread, Portuguese sardines, olive oil, and a lot of other imported items.

We also found another Portuguese bakery that was open by chance while driving through Riverbank. This bakery is new and called 9 Islands Portuguese Bakery, no doubt an allusion to the 9 islands that make up the Azores. Most Portuguese immigrants in California, especially the Central Valley, hail from the Azores. Bruce's Great-Grandfather, Joe Enos Farias, was no exception. At the 9 Islands bakery, we found the hot pepper sauce that I had made earlier plus some different kinds of cookies. This bakery will also have to be another stop when we come back.

On Sunday, we stopped by the olive trees we picked from last year and picked about 13 and a half pounds of green olives. These we are going to cure with lye and then flavor with garlic, oregano, and lemon. I'll show you how I do this on another post.

The bullfight in Escalon was at a ring I have never been to. After driving a few miles outside of town, we spotted it on the left-hand side of the road. It was small and very low-tech and in order to get to it, we had to drive through an empy field. We were some of the first folks to arrive, and I noticed that some of those people were having pre-fight tailgate parties. Soon after, Seth and his posse showed up. Without wasting much time, we charged headon to the food tents to buy some of the great Portuguese food we had been dreaming about for the last few weeks. We weren't disappointed.

On the menu was a seafood plate featuring whole mackerel that had been battered and deep-fried, spiced and sauteed onions, sliced bread, and boiled potatoes with the hot pepper sauce. Also on the menu was the spicy, tomato-octopus soup and fried eel. At another tent they were selling real linguica sandwiches that had been grilled.

This was the food I had been expecting and waiting for since last year and I wasn't disappointed. Unfortunately the linguica sold out before other folks in our group got a chance to try it.

To make a long story short (something I usually don't do), the bullfights were great, the food was great, the company was great, and we had a great time while we were down there.

Sorry for rushing through this, but it's Monday night and we just got back. I have olives to cure. I have to get ready for the work week and I need to make dinner.


UPDATE 9/8/05: Check out these pics taken by our friend Harlan. Oh, and no funny business! Ask him if you want to use them!

Thursday, September 01, 2005

They Need Our Help

Photo by AP/The Advocate, Richard Alan Hannon

It's time we came to the aid of our brothers and sisters in New Orleans.

While we here at Bacon Press like to joke around and have a good time about "eating uncomfortably", for thousands of our fellow citizens it is no laughing matter.

Please do what you can to help.

If you can't give money, give attention, give your voice, and give your support to the survivors of Hurricane Katrina and those working to relieve their suffering.

Red Cross
Rainbow World Fund
America's Second Harvest
Hurricane Housing

many more here...


PS Check out the many blogs participating in helping those affected by Hurricane Katrina!

PPS Check out these blogs live from New Orleans:

Metroblogging New Orleans
A Frolic Of My Own
Technorati's Katrina page

September is Eat Uncomfortable Month

Dear food bloggers, readers, and those of you who've come to this page through googling "ass", "meat", and "stripper":

In the newfound tradition of food bloggers issuing challenges to their readership, I would like to inform you that I can get in your face, poke you in the chest, and roll my head around just as good as the next guy/gal.

Yes, this is a challenge. You say, "just bring it"? I say, "it's been brought"!

Stand back sucka, cause this challenge ain't for tha weak. This challenge is designed to make you all sweaty. This challenge is designed to place you in a room full of people who scare you. This challenge is designed to make you go where no you has gone before.

No doubt you've heard of the "Eat Local Challenge". Well, this is a little ditty I call the Eat Uncomfortable Challenge.

For the month of September, I challenge you to eat cuisines you would never eat, dine in locations you would never dine, and create food you would never otherwise consider. Hell, I challenge you to even take out your hateful brother-in-law, boss, or neighbor to dinner, lunch, brunch, or breakfast. I want you to place yourself and your tastebuds in a situation that is alien or awkward to you, and I want you to come away from that experience by telling us how it changed you or didn’t change you, or just reaffirmed what you knew or made you aware of what you didn't know.

Damnit! I want to see some transformations, people!

September is a month of livin' fast and dangerous and if you didn't know that by now, then I've already put you on the right path for this challenge.

If all of this seems over-the-top, let me ask you: when is the last time you challenged your tastebuds? When is the last time you challenged your assumptions about people different from you, and what they eat, and how they eat? When is the last time you stepped out of your secure environment and had your eyes, nose, and mouth treated to something unexpected.

OK, don't answer that (you can email me, though).

And what the hell is in it for you?

How about opening your frickin' mind? How about discovering something new about food? How about discovering something new about yourself? How about giving you the impetus to learn? How about giving it your best shot and coming away with something you didn't have before (a better relationship with someone, a better outlook on life, a better idea of the world around you, a better place to call in food to go, etc.)

To tell you the truth, this challenge is designed in the interests of the "won't-step-outside-of-my-boundries" folks in mind, and chances are those who could most benefit from challenging themselves won't answer the call. That's OK, because I know that even some of you worldclass eaters out there will find this challenge difficult. And while I also will struggle to live up to this challenge, I can't promise you anything other than this:

Do you see that little column to the right? Well, if any of you decide to step up to the Eat Uncomfortable Challenge, your funkay little website link or name (readers without sites welcome!) will go right there. And if that isn't good enough for you, maybe I'll send you a little gold star or something.

Other than that, I wish you luck, my companeros.